Broadcast in the BBC’s Monitor arts slot, Béla Bartók (tx. 24/5/1964) was Ken Russell’s fourth film about a composer, and his first since the triumph of Elgar (tx. 11/11/1962) – in between, he made his unsuccessful feature debut French Dressing (1963). Operating under the same restrictions that affected his earlier documentaries, in particular Monitor head Huw Wheldon’s refusal to permit dramatised excerpts from real people’s lives, Russell’s portrait of the great Hungarian composer is largely made up of silent shots of Boris Ranevsky in the title role, interspersed with historical footage and imaginative visualisations of key aspects of Bartók’s music.
These take several forms: a contemporary update of the violent, passionate ballet The Miraculous Mandarin shows a sensual encounter with a prostitute turn suddenly nasty; Bartók’s research into folk music is accompanied by rustic images sourced from George Hoellering’s rhapsodic film Hortobágy (Hungary, 1936), while his uniquely distinctive ‘night music’ is illustrated via a spellbinding sequence based on the middle movement of his second piano concerto, with spidery fingers skittering over the keyboard, intercut with actual spiders, bats, owls and other nocturnal creatures.
His only opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle is staged in the starkly modernist setting of London’s New Zealand House, its doors leading to visions of hi-tech weaponry and a row of unnervingly blank-faced women (Bluebeard’s previous wives). Bartók’s increasing isolation from his fellow countrymen is depicted through a sequence of him descending an escalator surrounded by anonymous, sinister figures, underscored by the unforgettably creepy third movement of the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (sixteen years later, Stanley Kubrick would use it to similar effect in The Shining), while the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion illustrates his anxiety and confusion as a reluctant exile in high-speed high-volume New York. Finally, his Concerto for Orchestra signals the return of Hoellering’s footage, bringing the composer’s life and work full circle.
Wheldon’s sparse commentary only supplies basic biographical and contextual details, allowing Russell plenty of room to let the music breathe. This makes Béla Bartók rather less accessible than Elgar (the same is arguably true of Bartók’s spiky, dissonant music), and prior knowledge of the work is recommended, especially as individual pieces are rarely identified. But it’s one of Russell’s most controlled and coherent films, its high-contrast black-and-white images creating a remarkably convincing visual accompaniment to the work of one of the twentieth century’s most formidably original musical minds.
British director Ken Russell started out training for a naval career, but after wartime RAF and merchant navy service he switched goals and went into ballet. Supplementing his dancing income as an actor and still photographer, Russell put together a handful of amateur films in the 50s before being hired as a staff director by the BBC. Russell made a name for himself (albeit a name not always spoken in reverence) during the first half of the ‘60s by directing a series of iconoclastic TV dramatizations of the lives of famous composers and dancers. And if he felt that the facts were getting in the way of his story, he’d make up his own — frequently bordering on the libelous. If he had any respect for the famous persons whose lives he probed, it was secondary to his fascination with revealing all warts and open wounds.
A film director since 1963, Russell burst into the international consciousness with 1969’s Women in Love, a hothouse version of the D.H. Lawrence novel. No director… read more